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Flying the Alaskan Bush

Long before television channels were full of Alaska-this and Alaska-that reality TV shows, my grandparents took a trip there with the Cincinnati Zoo. When they returned, there was the usual childhood excitement of “what gift did they bring me back this time?” 

The gift was a brown hat my grandparents called a bush pilot hat. At first I was disappointed in the hat and thought, “what about a toy knife or some other cool toy?” However, my disappointment was short-lived when Grandpa told me the flying stories from their Alaskan adventure. 

This was the first time I learned about bush pilots and the type of flying they do day in and day out. Grandpa, an aviation junkie like me, explained the types of planes bush pilots were flying “up there,” the places they were flying into, and details about how they did it. I was mesmerized and also proud that I, a 9 year old kid from Ohio, had a genuine bush pilot hat.

These stories about Alaskan flying adventures, coupled with grandpa’s occasional WWII flying stories, built the foundation of my desire to fly. It would be years before I was able to experience flying a plane in Alaska myself, but I was hooked and had a hat to prove it.

If you like flying, the outdoors, wildlife, adventure and the stunning beauty of nature, you have to go to Alaska. My first trip to Alaska was in 2010 on an anniversary trip with my wife, Tracy. I did not have my pilot’s license yet, since I was still in the stop and start phase of my flying career (where life always seemed to get in the way of my goal of learning to fly). Just like when Grandpa came back from Alaska, I got the flying fever again, only this time was worse than ever. I hiked up the Flat Top Mountain Trail in Anchorage, constantly looking back at Lake Hood and Anchorage International, checking out all the planes, large and small, wheeled and float, moving in and out of the airspace. On our way to Denali, we stopped at Talkeetna just to look at planes. In Denali, I could see the K2 Aviation planes taking hikers to the trail head. It was settled: when I got back from this trip, I was going to get my private pilot’s license. I was determined that when I returned to Alaska, I was going to fly here.

I didn’t exactly get off our Delta flight and head straight to the local airport to start flight training, but it was not too long after. Learning to fly takes some work and dedication, along with good mentors to help you get over the plateaus that are part of any flight training. While burning holes in the sky over southwest Ohio with my flight instructor Dan Whitaker, a gearhead similar to me, we shared adventure stories and both agreed there really wasn’t a brand that captured the outdoor adventure side of aviation. I knew the idea was encapsulated in that bush pilot hat my grandparents brought me back from Alaska years ago, but it just needed a name. Flight Outfitters was born. 

Last year, I was lucky enough to return to Alaska to do some real flying with some real pilots. Flight Outfitters had a display at the Great Alaska Aviation Gathering in Anchorage and was also sponsoring the Valdez STOL competition the following week.  At the Aviation Gathering, I personally got to know many of the men and women who pilot their own and others’ adventures every day. The stereotypical image of the bush pilot is that of a rough old guy – part mountain man, part cowboy. In reality, the bush pilot community is full of men and women, young and old, from clean cut to a little on the granola side. They are all unbelievable stick and rudder pilots. True, there are a few cowboys in the bunch, but we all have a crazy uncle after all. Most, however, are excellent at risk assessment and management, and are able to fly safely – even under extraordinary conditions. They are wonderful navigators and skilled mechanics, too. 

In between the Aviation Gathering and the Valdez STOL competition, I headed down to Homer to fly with Chris Palmer and Deon Mitton, two extraordinary aviators who are also featured in this catalog. With the help of my Alaskan buddies, my dream came true as I piloted a gritty old 172 over Kachemak Bay and glaciers to small dirt strips, and even over some of those Alaskan reality show film sites. Although fully decked out in Flight Outfitters gear as I managed gravel strips and crazy crosswinds, with mountain views out the window and accompanied by my real bush pilot buddies, part of me wished I’d had that old bush pilot hat from grandpa.

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